These days I find myself reading mysteries. And I find myself thinking a lot about questions, for a variety of strange and stranger reasons.
I have one of ‘those’ brains: it never seems to shut off, it’s ever searching for answers whether or not the questions being broached are the kind that even have answers. I think that’s my Type A self. The mechanical side that sees the components and pieces them together handily, and should something not fit, discards it without another glance. But I’m a Gemini, and despite that Capricorn ascendant, I can’t ever completely escape the madness that is both the blessing and curse of my birth sign.
There are some questions that ever remain questions, and the purpose of them lies in the exploration. They are the art of the moment, held to the light, fascinating and unique for themselves alone, and not valued on the outcome, or the anchor of meaning. I think they scare my Type A, that says, “Now, Ursula, something is either THIS, or THAT, And if it is THIS, then it has attributes and characteristics you can not escape, meaning you can’t change. And if it’s THAT, well the same holds true.” But really, there are some questions, that you can’t seem to adequately answer, except perhaps to say, ‘well I’d know it if I laid eyes on it’. I think these reflect the ultimate subjectivity of reality, like the accident scene viewed through many eyes, except all those eyes and views are in the head of the same person.
Perhaps that’s why I write? Because it’s a good vehicle for these conundrums that are both pleasing, and maddening? At one point, in Immortal Illusions, Seth, the Egyptian God of Chaos (who, curiously, according to myth, has red hair. Makes you wonder, but, ah, a story for another day) says to the heroine, Raine, about humans, that we are so black and white, that for us things are either this or that. He implies that there is an entire universe contained between those polarities. I think he might be right. I also think that this universe of strange and spooky potential is what really grabs me in good fiction. McKee says story happens in the gap. More than story happens in the gap, though. Life happens in the gap.
I have a few very favorite mystery authors with series I love. Let me tell you, they have some weird shit going on, questions of the above ilk, that either have no answers or too many, or the answers are really not the things the right and proper self wants to examine past a cursory glance lest it feel it needs a hot shower, and a gallon of hand sanitizer. Charles Todd writes about Inspector Ian Rutlidge, post WWI, shell shocked, and carrying around the ghost of a dead soldier that he was to kill, and who shielded him with his dead body and kept him alive while those around him perished in one of the final horrific battles. For those unfamiliar with the English approach to rousting a German machine gun nest, here’s the plan: line the men up, and send them into the fire. Oh, they’re dead? Line up another hundred, and if they don’t go, shoot them as cowards. And, while you’re at it, shoot those wounded who refuse to return to the front to face the same, or whose minds are too bent to properly wrap around the current fashionable die-for-Queen-and-Country version of War. WWI was responsible for wiping out a generation of young men, unlike any war seen to at the time. So it’s not a pretty thing, and it raises so many questions the main character just can’t answer. Neither can the Ghost he carries in his mind, as he goes into these remote British countryside towns, and unearths more unspeakable crimes that happen without adequate answer. Except of course, to answer to the darkness that all human souls carry deep inside.
I’m a history buff, so I find the setting and attention to detail wonderful, but more than that, I’m a character buff. I love characterization that takes you deep into someone who is so imperfect as to seem so human. (Charles Todd by the way is a Mother Son team). I love these books, can’t get enough. Because so many questions don’t have neat answers, or when they do have answers, they’re not always the P.C. answers. These stories, like life, are not clean. They’re messy, fraught with human frailty, error, and at the same time, that wild streak of hope.
The next author I really enjoy is Julia Spencer-Flemming. How the hell I picked her first book up is a totally mystery to me. It’s nice to know after nearly 40 years on this planet I can still surprise at least myself. Anyway, the heroine is an ex-army helicopter pilot turned Episcopal priest. Yeah, I know, I was a little freaked out by it too. Oh, but it gets WAY better. She’s at her first priestly post, in this little Adirondack town. Perhaps that what drew me: I love the Adirondacks. If any place on mother earth is full of magic and foreboding and all things mysterious and wonderful and edgy, it’s the Adirondacks. So there’s this Sheriff, and he’s a former local boy, did a tour in Nam, became an MP, married, crawled in and out of a liquor bottle, and ultimately came back to his hometown. You get the impression his marriage is kind of a mystery to him. And as the story winds up and gets going, the chemistry between the priest and the sheriff is unbelievable. Now this continues through out the rest of the books. Soon, the wife appears. And you know, you’re thinking, here’s this guy who wants to get busy with this priest, and she wants the same, so of course he’s going to give you the impression that his wife is a cold, self-centered bitch when you’re in his mind (except he doesn’t, he decides he’s the heel, which makes you think that something more than meets the eye is going on and that perhaps he is not a reliable narrator of his own life. Which is later confirmed.)
I think we’re all conditioned as women to instantly loathe the man who strays and the woman he strays with, and I’m no exception. But here I am reading this, and cheering when the guy kisses the priest, only to think, what the hell is wrong with me? Trust me, this goes from bad to worse, and at one point, all these people in this one book are dead and the wife says to the sheriff “well, see, it took all this to make you figure out how much I’m worth” or some other sanctimonious garbage, and I tell you what, every answer you thought you knew to be right to those questions, they vanish in an uncertain puff of smoke and you are left with a world that is somewhere between THIS and THAT: hell: a whole universe: populated by people who are real, making mistakes, trying to get by and doing badly sometimes, and then, in these rare moments, finding light in the darkness, or deciding that questions maybe don’t have the kinds of answers they should, or the answers they do can vary from moment to moment.
I don’t condone, but I don’t judge either. I just surf the alternate realities, and I’m anchored for a time in that strange universe because at the heart of the machine are people. And, when I escape into the gap created by a good storyteller, I can for a while, put my own unanswerable questions on hold, or maybe come out of Oz with a better understanding of them. Even if that understanding means the questions stay unanswered, held up to the light only for the sake of curiosity, or accepted in that the answer is random, fatalistic, or nonsense, and any of those outcomes is okay.
So, at this one house I lived in with friends, we used to collect lightbulb jokes. And this is the one that fits: How many surrealists does it take to change a lightbulb? A fish. Yep. Sometimes that's the outcome. It just is, and that's all there is and all you can do about it, so you accept it and keep on moving. And that is more real than any of those books out there with perfect superheroes and superheroines always doing, saying, wearing, thinking, feeling the right and proper and perfect thing. Screw that. Let me linger a while longer between THIS and THAT, in that imperfect moment where everything is merely improbably and never impossible.
Yes, I know. No more blogging after cold medicine.
Go read these guys, if you like mysteries. I promise, you’ll be hooked. And it will be worth every second.